Building Critical Communication Skills in Statistics
For statistician and Assistant Professor of Statistics, Dr. Nicole Carnegie, solid technical writing skills are critically important for anyone using data to make a point. “It is not enough to know how to run a regression; a student must understand what it means to be running that regression and be able to interpret the output and clearly convey the results,” Carnegie writes.
Dr. Carnegie identified the Applied Statistics sequence (STAT 411/412) as a significant site where students develop their ability to communicate technical results in writing. It serves STEM majors across campus, from Conservation Biology and Ecology to Math with Teaching options to Snow Science, Environmental Health, GIS/Planning, Environmental Analysis, Finance, and Geography. The course is co-convened with the respective graduate course (STAT 511/512).
The goal for Methods for Data Analysis II, which Dr. Carnegie taught in Spring 2020, is to move students beyond understanding the core concepts of statistics, such as sampling and uncertainty, to applying that knowledge.
Dr. Carnegie worked with Writing Center staff to modify a large data-analysis project. Together we developed sustainable assessment techniques that would be more efficient for instructors and teach students essential technical writing skills, such as working all the way through their writing process, thinking critically about audience, working graphics into written reports effectively, and seeking and providing peer feedback.
Tutor-facilitated writing studios, held every other week throughout the course, modeled writing as a collaborative, social activity where students could work through the messiness of their writing processes, practice giving and receiving feedback, learn about their own writing, and produce a more polished product.
We are excited about future collaboration with Dr. Carnegie and her colleagues because we learned so much from the process. Here are her reflections on the experience of integrating writing into her course.
Writing Center: What motivated you to integrate writing into your STEM course?
Nicole Carnegie: Writing is critically important for statisticians—data analyses don't speak for themselves to most audiences, so our students need to learn to communicate with a wide variety of folks.
WC: Describe the writing assignment/experience you designed for your class.
NC: We developed a scaffolded, semester-long data analysis and reporting project. Students chose a data source and question, as well as an audience to whom they are trying to communicate their results (e.g. scientific journal readers or a consulting client). The assignment was broken down into stages—choosing question and audience, writing background and introduction, developing an analysis plan, writing conclusions—with review at all stages.
WC: Why did you decide on that particular writing experience?
NC: It encapsulates the type of communication skills I want the students to develop and also gives them the experience of working through the process of developing a question, choosing statistical approaches, data cleaning, etc. The types of examples they work on in class don't generally reach this depth of thought.
WC: Describe the support your students received through the Writing Center.
NC: The students had writing studios, first in-person and then online, each with 4-5 class members and a writing tutor. It provided them a place to discuss the assignment and the stages of their drafts with some writing-focused guidance and without the pressure of being evaluated by me.
WC: What have you learned about integrating writing into your curriculum from this experience?
NC: I am learning how to incorporate writing efficiently –my tendency in the past has been to assign more writing than I have the capacity to process and respond to. Incorporating peer review helps the students learn more about their own writing and can ease the burden for the instructor—a win-win!
WC: What will you keep and what will you revise for the next iteration of your class?
NC: I will keep the basic structure of the assignment and would love to keep the Writing Studios for students. I might think about adjusting peer review processes and my feedback processes for supporting students—not an area I've been terribly successful in, even with the support and suggestions from the lovely Writing Center folks.